Anything for a Laff: 2 questions for Marjorie Manwaring


Marjorie Manwaring is the author of "Snow Day," "Where Sadness Comes From," and "Musée Mécanique," about the last of which:

Your poem "Musée Mécanique" captures the sense of wonderment and playfulness a kid must have felt, walking into a penny arcade, and seeing its hand-made, mechanical, silent movie-thrill games, back when they were the going thing. What's the penny arcade of now - and would you write a poem about it? And If someone else writes a poem about it, decades from now, what will play the role of Laffing Sal - and what will be the new Mystic Ray?

As for what might be the "penny arcade" of now—well, when I was a kid, we still had pinball machines, which seem like first cousins to the penny-arcade games, and then most of those got replaced by video games—and I'll admit, I never got that into those. (My brother and I got "Pong" for Christmas one year—that and a few games of Pac-Man and the occasional car-racing game in a cramped anteroom while waiting for a table at a pizza parlor are the extent of my video-game know-how.)

I still like the pinball machines—the noise and sound and feel of them, the atmosphere of being in a dark space with the lights blinking and zinging and the sound of the pinball rolling... And I know there is cool stuff out there like the simulation games and all that, but they are just something I haven't felt compelled to try. And now it seems like most people play at home or on a laptop or phone—although I know there are places like GameWorks, but (surprise!) I haven't been there, either. So, one thought is that the penny arcade of today is a place like GameWorks or a kid's laptop or other device. And I probably wouldn't write about those because I don't know that world and don't get inspired by it. However, I think that even the computer-literate kids of today are drawn to the whole dizzying, over stimulating, deep-fried-fat spectacle that is a carnival or a fair or an amusement park. And, there are still the simpler closer-to-home (timeless?) pleasures—kids still seem to enjoy getting gum or prizes out of gumball machines at the grocery store. They still seem unable to stop themselves from coveting the cheap plush toys in those crane games strategically placed at burger and pizza joints. Call me nostalgic, a Luddite, a fuddy-duddy, but I think there is something quite satisfying and pleasurable about inserting a coin into a machine and hearing the giant jawbreaker roll down the chute or manipulating the crane's claw so that it latches onto the ears of a stuffed Piglet. And I have, and do write poems about that world.

lovecalcWhat might the new "Mystic Ray" be? The machine I write about in the poem is at Musée Mécanique in San Francisco. It tests your "love appeal" by asking you to place your hand on a metal plate, which contains a hand-shaped depression that is dotted with small pin-sized holes, no doubt a way to evaluate your life line and the like. I was pretty sure there had to be an app for something like this but not owning a Smartphone, I didn't know for sure. (Yeah, you knew that was coming. And no, I don't still use a modem or a rotary dial phone.) Of course Google can come to the rescue, and, sure enough, here are just two examples of what is available: LoveCalc for Android—"The most complete and accurate love compatibility calculator"—and Name Match 2011—"Calculate whether two people fit together based on first names. Based on an ancient Scandinavian love formula." All this just in time for Valentine's Day!

And finally—Laffing Sal. She, like the Mystic Ray, is housed at the Musée Mécanique, and you can watch her on YouTube. The placard that lies at her feet inside her glass encasement tells us that she "has made us smile and/or terrified children for over fifty years. Bring history to life with the investment of 50 cents." First let me say I don't think it's only children she terrifies. Second, I think Sal taps into what Freud called "the uncanny," that feeling of unease when something is life-like but not alive—or is it? We experience dissonance in watching this oversized, slightly creepy, jerky-motioned likeness of a woman belt out her hysterical and contagious laughter; it leaves us a little off-kilter (but in a good, roller-coaster, Chucky-movie kind of way), as do many of the other automata and mechanized dioramas in the museum. Being fond of many things vintage and antique, I like to think that Laffing Sal and her ilk will continue to hold sway over those who meet them. Perhaps the Mystic Ray can tell me if I'm right.